LONDON – The International Olympic Committee agreed Tuesday to adopt rules for dealing with cases of female athletes who have excessive levels of male hormones.
IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist said the committee will enact rules for determining the eligibility of women athletes with "hyperandrogenism" — a condition involving overproduction of male sex hormones.
The ruling IOC executive board agreed to put rules in place in time for the 2012 London Olympics. The IOC will also ask other sports federations to adopt similar measures.
The issue of gender verification gained global attention after South African runner Caster Semenya was ordered to undergo sex tests after winning the 800 meters at the 2009 world championships.
Ljungqvist insisted the IOC initiative had "nothing to do" with the Semenya case and that Olympic and medical experts have been debating the issues for years.
At the heart of the matter is whether a female athlete derives a competitive advantage over other women because of higher than normal levels of hormones such as testosterone. Some women with the condition develop male-like body characteristics, Ljungqvist said.
"Women with hyperandrogenism generally perform better in sport than other women," the IOC said in a statement.
Ljungqvist said the condition is "extremely rare" in sports.
"There will not be many such cases," he said. "In my experience, there have been only a handful of cases in the last 10 years. (But) they are there and they have to be dealt with in fairness for the athletes and for sport."
The IOC medical commission will formulate detailed rules and submit them for approval at the executive board meeting in Durban, South Africa, in July.
The IOC collaborated with track and field's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, in drafting proposed guidelines. Ljungqvist said the IAAF is expected to approve them at a council meeting later this month.
The IOC proposals call for a panel of independent medical experts to examine any case of hyperandrogenism and make a recommendation on whether the athlete should be eligible to compete. The individual sports federation would make a final ruling.
"These are very individual cases and they have to be judged case by case," Ljungqvist said.
Athletes should first be referred to specialist medical centers around the world where they would be checked for any health risks or need for treatment, he said.
If an athlete is ruled ineligible, she would be notified and informed of what conditions she would need to meet in order to return to competition.
The entire process should be conducted in "strict confidentiality" to protect the individual's medical privacy, Ljungqvist said.
Ljungqvist cited several possible triggers to an investigation: an athlete approaching medical officials on her own to seek evaluation; an athlete being identified as having male characteristics during drug testing; or a doping test showing abnormal hormone levels.
Allegations by one competitor against another will not be considered a basis for investigation, Ljungqvist stressed.
"We don't want to get into a situation of finger pointing," he said.
The IOC and IAAF organized a scientific symposium on the issue in Miami in January 2010 and a followup meeting last October involving scientists, sports officials, lawyers and human rights experts.
Semenya dominated the women's 800 meters at the 2009 worlds in Berlin. Her dramatic improvement in times and muscular build led the IAAF to order gender tests.
Amid acrimony between the IAAF and Semenya and South African officials, the case dragged on for 11 months before the IAAF cleared Semenya to run again in July. The IAAF has refused to confirm or deny Australian media reports that tests indicated Semenya had both male and female sex organs.
The IOC used to carry out mandatory gender exams at the Olympics, but those checks were dropped in 1999 because the screening process — chromosome testing — was deemed unscientific and unethical. The IOC instead has convened a special medical panel on site at the Olympics that can intervene, if necessary.